KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai and Afghan lawmakers appear headed for a major clash after Karzai postponed the inauguration of the new parliament and politicians elected in the controversial vote said they'd start their work unilaterally.
The first test in the looming constitutional crisis will occur Sunday, when many of those elected will attempt to enter the legislature, and the government will have to decide whether to order security forces to prevent them.
"If the government stops us entering the parliament building" by deploying police or soldiers "we are ready to accomplish our goals by laying down our lives," said Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, who was elected from Kabul. He added, "Sunday will be the day when it is decided whether we will have democracy or autocracy."
Karzai's office said late Wednesday that he'd defer by a month the already much-delayed inauguration of parliament, which had been scheduled for Sunday, in deference to a special court that's examining allegations of fraud in last September's elections. It was unclear how the court can properly investigate the fraud that's widely thought to have taken place in such a short time. The constitutionality of the court itself is under question.
The United States has backed the outcome of the parliamentary election, seeing the legislature as an important part of the U.S. drive to enhance governance in Afghanistan. Better administration and an improved security situation are key to the U.S. plan to exit Afghanistan.
Karzai has been accused of trying to defang a parliament that, according to the current results, will provide greater opposition than the last one did. Pashtuns, Karzai's ethnic constituency, lost out in the polls to other groups that are less likely to back him. The disenfranchisement of Pashtuns could bolster support for the Taliban insurgency, which is composed almost exclusively of Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan.
"This is a huge risk for the international community, and it will probably be solved by some kind of bargain between Karzai and the international community," said Haroun Mir, a political analyst who stood unsuccessfully in the parliamentary polls from Kabul. "The election has lost credibility, and the next parliament will be very weak, as its legitimacy has already been undermined.
"This is a big blow for democracy in Afghanistan."
On Wednesday, the special court, which Karzai set up in December, asked for a delay of at least a month in the inauguration of the parliament while it looked into more than 300 complaints from losing candidates.
"You cannot find any province in which there was not fraud," the head of the five-judge court, Sadiqullah Haqiq, said Wednesday.
However, according to the constitution, the election watchdog, the Independent Election Commission, is the final arbiter of such disputes, and it hasn't accepted the court's jurisdiction. The commission already has rejected about a fifth of the votes that were cast and has disqualified 19 winning candidates.
More than 200 parliamentarians met Wednesday to elect a speaker and deputy speaker for the new parliament. Mansoor, who was close to the late guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, from the non-Pashtun north of the country, said he and other elected members wouldn't accept any verdict handed down by the court, which he said was illegal.
Around 2,500 candidates had contested the 249 seats in parliament. Violence and intimidation in the Pashtun south of the country kept turnout low. It was Afghanistan's second parliamentary election since the U.S.-led intervention of the country in 2001.
The last parliament had began to assert itself against Karzai a year ago by rejecting most of his ministerial candidates.
Karzai's administration has been widely criticized for blatant corruption and weak governance, thus providing a poor democratic alternative to the Taliban's radical Islamist agenda. Widespread fraud also tarnished Karzai's re-election as president in 2009.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)
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